The last question was asked, half in jest, by Isaac Asimov sometime in the year 1956. In this short story, Asimov presented the problematic of asking systems of information about the limits of the universe itself. Throughout the story, the last question “can entropy be reversed?” (or more simply put “will the universe ever come to an end?”) is asked by humans to their computers throughout infinity, until only the machine and the question remain. It is a bold question (Mary Shelley’s words), one upon which, without a doubt, history’s most brilliant minds of astrophysics pondered endlessly. Asimov takes a vertiginous leap at answering this final question and finds a solution fitting to the magnitude of problem. The story was famously selected by the author as his own favorite; an opinion shared by many of his fans as well. And the final answer can be taken in many directions, and although biblical, even to me, a heated atheist, provides a secular meaning. Kind of like the ending of Lost.
Let’s look at the content itself. As the story intervals some factors are subject to change and some remain the same: The human lives’ characteristics are variable and so are the human and computer capabilities, but the fundamental relationships are repeated (humans ask themselves “what happens when we exhaust all energy and space? And can we do anything about it?” and the information super-computer up until the end admits to failing to come up with an answer. Finally, at the end of time, when the computer has acquired every last bit of information about the cosmos (read: all that is, or ever was, or ever will be (Carl Sagan, Cosmos S01E01), we find ourselves right at the beginning. At infinity’s end, the start.
Great, but what can we say about this text now, 60 years after its publication date, and closer to the (science-) fictitious date where the story begins? We can extrapolate it with three time moments, how it plays in history, how it applies to our present, and to try to redefine it given what we know towards the future. We can do that without making it too complicated, that’s partially the beauty of Asimov’s writing isn’t it? How precise and simple his writing is?
Throughout his life, Asimov struggled with his relationship with the U.S. military. At young age, he was not exempt from service like he should have only due to a bureaucratic mistake. He almost had to attend the nuclear tests of the Bikini Atoll, and once he had gained recognition as a writer was courted by NARPA, which whom he decided to have no involvement. It was perhaps this constant contact with arms racing that made Asimov so able to imagine the future. His futuristic abilities are astounding, he predicted basically, Google on our phones, and the scaling of nanotechnology. Now we have, like he said “turned fiction into fact”; we know that our phones have an interface that connects wirelessly to a world wide web of information stored digitally, and we are becoming aware on our daily lives, of what it means to have instant access to this world wide web of information, how it affects our lives and intelligence. What can we expect of the future from this vantage point? We can expect the rise of quantum computing in the future, which will give us unprecedented information processing capabilities. What will we do with such awesome computing power? We have n—wait… Actually, Asimov gave us a couple of ideas.